At a recent conference, I talked about what books might look like in the near future, with the focus on mobile devices such as the iPad. I ended by asserting that it is a very exciting time to be an aspiring book author, with one’s hands on (what matters), the content. Ways of expressing that content are currently undergoing an explosion of new metaphors, and we might even expect some of them to succeed! But content is king, as they say.
Here I list only some innovative solutions which have emerged in the last year or so, but which also raise important issues which we ignore at our peril.
- TouchPress were one of the first publishers to get off the mark with their living books. Their first offering was The Elements, deriving from an earlier interactive display of the periodic table (an example of which can be seen in the entrance to the chemistry building at Imperial College). It is a programmed book, in the sense that the content is expressed using code written by the publisher (very much in the manner of interactive games).
- Next to appear were Inkling, who describe their offering as interactive. Their approach is described in a blog written by their founder, Matt Macinnis. There he talks about The Art of Content Engineering, which again makes it sound as if authoring a book is in effect programming it! (I know what he means; if you follow the link to the talk I allude to above, you may spot that it too is, at least in part, programmed, and not simply written). Inkling also promote the book as part of a social network, with readers able to annotate the content, and share that annotation with others.
- The latest company to change the way books are both read and authored is Pushpoppress, the heart of which is also an interactive app.
- Then there is the epub3 format. This is a free and open standard for e-books. This third revision in particular is meant to enhance interactivity.
Something of a common theme so far. Books are going to be interactive! But what about these issues?
- Each of the first three (commercial) publishers above has adopted their own programming format. Although HTML5 may be at the heart of some of this, programming may also mean control (in the sense that the creative industries must put control of their content at the heart of what they do). Each of the first three above sound like a closed system, and extracting re-usable content is, I argue, an essential part of doing science. I am just a tad worried that the approaches exemplified above may not allow this to happen.
- Suppose you manage to acquire a chemistry textbook in any of the four approaches listed above. Will they inter-operate, in the sense of being able to extract data from one and perhaps inject it into another? Or will each be a data- or information silo, rigidly controlled by the creative content generator (whoever that is)?
- What might an aspiring author, intent on creating interactive content do? Should they go closed/proprietary or open? They will clearly need to retrain themselves. We have indeed come a long way along the road: hand-written manuscript → typed manuscript → word-processed manuscript → interactive app! Like computer games, is the day of the single-authored book rapidly fading, to be replaced by a large team, each with their own tasks to perform?
I end with this question. Is the era of books, just like the Web itself, going to be the app? And who will be able to (find the time) to participate?